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Informing the “sleep” conversation

November 28, 2018

There is no shortage of research detailing the perils of inadequate sleep. You don’t need me to add to that reading list. You also don’t need me to describe the relationship between addictive “screen time” and sleep deprivation. There’s plenty of supporting documentation readily available.
My purpose today… and every day for that matter… is to inform a conversation that may take us to a better place. The conversation in question is the one we have with our teenagers on their need for better sleep habits.
Unless we can make a compelling case in conversation with our kids, most of what we say goes in one ear and out the other. As in any debate, success is most likely when the other side makes a case against their own position. The challenge here is in how to choreograph a conversation in which our kids come to the realization that their position on sleep is the same as our position on sleep. If we can help them to see the right path (ours) as their own idea, perhaps we’ll both come sooner to a happy place.
Pre-puberty, parental decrees can work. “Thou shalt not have devices in the bedroom.” If you’re lucky, like we were, early adoption of this practice will hold steady through the teen years. Post-puberty, however, all bets are off. Hormonally, the conversation with older children demands a more Socratic strategy.
One of my key areas of work is conducting surveys of students. Asking 100 closed-ended questions, completed inside of 15 minutes, we are quickly able to learn how students rate: their experience at school; their relationships with peers and teachers; their level of engagement in school life; and their self-appraised preparedness across a listing of academic and life skills. We also ask a few demographic questions. Nothing complicated here. These are top-line results. Answers to this point in the exercise are ‘explicit’. The fun starts when we dissect this data in search of ‘implicit’ revelation.
Working together with senior administrators in the development of a questionnaire, I’m sometimes presented with the suggestion, “Okay, now that we’ve come up with these 100 specific measures of the student experience, we need to ask students which ones rank most important to their overall experience and success at our school.” We do not! First, this would assume that students know what makes for overall satisfaction and overall success. Second, it would assume that they will provide intellectually honest answers. I don’t mean that participants will intentionally mislead us in their answers. At the same time, depending on how a question is worded, and depending on how the answer series is structured, respondents (of all ages) may be inclined to respond “as they think they’re supposed to answer.” Having respondents rank their answers would also add significant time to the completion of the survey.
For these reasons, my overwhelming preference is to dissect and cross-tabulate answers. The truth is found in the cross-tabs. To illustrate, here’s a simple example. Let’s say we ask students to rate 10 specific school-life elements, including:

Next, we rank order the resulting scores. How would these ten measures line up at your school? I could not guess. What would top the list? Again, I have no idea. What would fall to the bottom of the list? On this account, I have no problem making a prediction. Quality of food will be in the lowest rank 99 times out of 100. While it may score a little stronger for students in fifth and sixth grade, once puberty hits, as I say, all bets are off. Lunch program is an easy target for teenagers just finding their voice. Lunch program cannot win. End of discussion.
So… what have we learned from these top-line ratings? We’ve learned lots. Importantly, we’ve established a baseline score for each of ten measures and can work for improvement before conducting the survey again three years down the road. The challenge comes when we’re trying to respond to ratings of 100 measures taken in a full survey, with limited resources. How do we prioritize our response? Do we just target the bottom three or four and leave the rest? Or is there another option? Happily, there is.
In context, we’ve learned much more than the topline ratings offer. The three most important words in the interpretation of my work are, “compared to what”. Compared to other schools. Compared to ourselves. Compared across grade of the child. Compared across tenure with the School. Compared by gender of the child. Compared across racial or cultural identity. Compared by travel time from home to the School. Critically, compared across reported overall satisfaction with the student experience.
So… while the ranking of these ten specific school-life elements may lead some to target improvements for the lunch program… or other low-scoring measures, I contend that the most effective and efficient response is to attend first to those measures most highly correlated to key barometer measures. From a survey of 100 measures, you shouldn’t want to know just which items rank highest and lowest. You should want to know which five of these 100 items are most highly correlated to reported overall satisfaction. You want to know how first-year students differ from their longer-tenured peers. You want to know how attitudinal ratings migrate with progression through the grades… or if there are anomalous spikes or valleys in particular grades.
How does all this relate to conversations with our kids and students on the subject of sleep? Here’s how:
In surveys of students, we regularly ask how long they typically sleep on school nights, offering three ranges: less than six hours; between six and eight hours; and greater than eight hours. Then we tear these answers apart, crossed by all of the demographic questions described above… and close to 100 others, including:

Of interest, we also make these comparisons crossing the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers to the question, “Do you regularly engage in distracting activity while doing homework?” In both instances (sleep and distracting activity) we find significant distinctions throughout this collection of measures.
It gives me no end of joy to present my findings to assemblies of students, declaring, “This is not me talking… you said this in your answers to the survey. I’m merely holding up a mirror so you can understand exactly what you have said. You told us that, if you don’t get eight hours of sleep, your ratings throughout these measures suffer. You also told us that, if you engage in distracting activity while doing homework, these same ratings suffer. You sleep less (in some cases, 30% less), you spend more time on homework (in some cases, 30% more), you don’t do as well academically, you rate your student experience much lower, you’re lesser engaged at school, both inside and outside of the classroom, and are meaningfully more stressed than those students who don’t engage in distracting activity.”
Slide after slide in my presentation hammers these points home. “You need to get more sleep and you’re in control of a significant factor contributing to success in attaining adequate sleep.”
Working over the past 20 years with more than 100 independent schools, conducting over 400 constituent surveys, I’ve been party to many discussions centred on the articulation of 21st century skills. It seems to me that we have yet to arrive at any consensus as to what belongs on this list of skills.
From where I sit, the simpler we can frame the path ahead, the better. From where I sit, the one key skill that will impact most on success or failure in the coming century, in comparison to centuries past, is adaptability. Our children should anticipate seven or eight career stops or more, not one. Bodies of knowledge will continue to turn over entirely in very short periods of time. Our spheres of influence and relational maps will be many, not few. Technology skills will continue to evolve, rising in need and then disappearing with further advances in automation. Entire fields of employment will continue to be rendered obsolete. We must adapt.
To my point today, every enhancement to devices placed in the hands of our children will call on them, and us, to be watchful and adaptable. Insofar as we allow these very appealing devices to promote addictive behaviour, and they do promote addictive behaviour, there will be a price to pay in quality of life and well-being for our children. In a very uncomplicated manner, the risks are highlighted in the results of every single student survey I conduct.
Aside from enhanced need for adaptability, the same skills and qualities and attributes that have served for many centuries will be the same ones that serve generations of children to come. Character and values, habits and discipline. These have been, and always will be, foundational points of distinction between success and failure.
Most of my blog entries fit into the ‘character and values’ basket, reflecting the daily reminders I face every time I turn on the news. Not always my strong suit, file this entry under ‘habits and discipline’.
Heading to bed now… where’s my iPad?
With respect,

Kevin Graham

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